Think about the last time you truly lost your shit.
Maybe a coworker slighted you in front of your boss, or you walked in on your boyfriend in bed with your best friend. You likely felt a tidal wave of rage; accelerating your heart and causing your stomach to drop. But what if it was you, in fact, who was causing this emotion? What if you could make yourself feel differently?
In her new book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life Of The Brain, Toronto-born neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that everything we feel that we know about our emotions may be wrong.
Her theory of Constructed Emotion goes like this: Our brains run on an interoceptive network. This controls our heartbeat, digestion, nerve response, and so on. All of this happens in the background, unbeknownst to us – and for good reason. Without this network humming away, we would inevitably feel overwhelmed.
Our interoceptive network makes predictions based on our past experiences. If there is any imbalance to this network – caused by lack of sleep, crappy food and life stress – this can inevitably influence what Feldman Barrett dubs affect, or mood. This affect can in turn colour what we describe as ‘emotion’ – mental events that we have seen or experienced before – like happy, sad, or angry.
She asserts our emotions aren’t some mysterious force that happen to us; we create them. And we don’t all feel the same things; emotional concepts vary from culture to culture. We design our feelings based on what we have learned; ratcheting up the sadness when our dog dies or cursing in anger when some jerk cuts us off.
These emotions are not housed in specific regions of our brain. Rather, they are reinforced throughout our brain synapses, making us responsible for them. We do this almost automatically, recalling past experiences and making predictions about future ones. We predict when an event is on the horizon, and our bodies (rightfully or wrongly) start making adjustments to cope. Occasionally that means forming an emotion to give meaning to these sensations.
The problem is that the classical view of emotion – an essentialist idea that our passionate, animalistic sides are at constant war with our rational, intellectual selves – has dominated the discourse for hundreds of years. This idea has spurred a variety of problematic beliefs; that women are more emotional, that we can’t really be blamed for crimes committed in the “heat of passion,” that we can know how others are feeling by looking at their faces.
This is dangerous because it can lead to stereotypes and policies that do more harm than good. When women experience heart attack symptoms, for example, they are “more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and sent home,” writes Feldman. “Whereas if you’re a man, you’re more likely to be diagnosed with heart disease and receive lifesaving preventive treatment. As a result, women over age sixty-five die more frequently of heart attacks than men do.”
An erroneous view of emotion can also result in wasted resources. A recent training program called SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques) was taught to TSA agents “to detect deception and assess risk based on facial and bodily movements, on the theory that such movements reveal your innermost feelings,” writes Feldman. “It didn’t work, and the program cost taxpayers $900 million.”
She presents an alternative view: the theory of Constructed Emotion. It states that our emotions are not universal as we believe them to be, rather they are a learned social reality reinforced by our social interactions and experiences; moreover, they do not stem from a specific region of our brain. “A mental event, such as fear, is not created by only one set of neurons,” writes Feldman. “Instead, combinations of different neurons can create instances of fear. Neuroscientists call this principle degeneracy. Degeneracy means many to one: many combinations of neurons can produce the same outcome.”
All of this means that we are more responsible for our emotions than we realized. “Being responsible doesn’t necessarily mean you’re culpable,” says Feldman. “There’s a difference between being blameworthy and being responsible. Sometimes responsibility falls to you because there’s no one else to do something, and you’re the only one who could do it.”
The positive practical applications of this theory are profound. “The horizon of your control is much broader than you might imagine,” says Feldman, “both for your own emotions and for the impact that you have on other people, which is substantial.” She explains that there is one ingredient to emotion: the feelings that come from interoceptive sensations in your body (e.g., your heart beating, your lungs expanding, and temperature and so on).
We usually experience those sensations not in high-definition (like vision and hearing), but in low-dimensional form: feelings of pleasantness or unpleasantness, feeling worked up, feeling calm. “I wouldn’t say we’re responsible for those simple feelings, they’re not properties of emotion, they’re properties of consciousness. Because your brain is always controlling your body, so there are always sensations from your body being presented in your brain. Whether or not your brain is making an emotion. Your brain tends to make emotion when those feelings are very intense.”
There are things you can do to regulate what Feldman calls affect (or mood): Eat better, exercise, get enough sleep, practice mindfulness. “If your body is in balance, you’re less likely to feel intense bouts of negative feeling. By virtue of that, you’ll have less negative emotion.” It’s also important to be able to re-categorize a feeling when you are in a bad mood. “Often, when we invest effort to cultivate new experiences in the moment, we are re-categorizing in a very deliberate way. If we do it frequently enough, then it becomes automatic. One of the ways you can control your future experiences in a very efficient way is by cultivating different emotions in the moment, broadening the repertoire or vocabulary of emotions you can make in the moment. That actually feeds your brain to make different experiences in the future.”
Furthermore, we can have a positive effect on other people’s emotions by being abundantly clear about how we’re feeling. “When we perceive emotion in others, we are guessing, essentially,” she says. “Since other people are guessing about how I’m feeling, it’s sort of puts more responsibility on me to be a good sender of emotional cues – to be more clear and direct, and not force people to guess so much.”
It’s also led her to help other people avoid prediction error. “I’m a professor and I’m constantly giving critical feedback to my students. Rather than just blurting something out, I’ll warn them. It changes how they perceive me if I warn them in advance, rather than have things come out of the blue and have it be a prediction error, which is always associated as an increase in arousal, which people often experience as anxiety, fear or anger.”
She maintains it is also helpful to try to figure out when a negative feeling is just your body budget being unbalanced and when is an emotion called for. Sometimes you’re just tired or hungry. “I had a friend who passed away from ALS,” she says, “and the theory was helpful to him because we talked about in advance that he was going to start having physical sensations from his body that were very unpleasant. It would be very easy for him to use that as an ingredient to being depressed, because something very horrible was happening. Instead, he was able to separate discomfort from suffering. As a consequence, he didn’t really become depressed. He had a better death. Mindfulness meditation teaches this for example to people who have chronic pain, and it reduces their opiate use.”
She advocates expanding our conceptual system and encouraging people to cultivate new experiences. “It’s not that thinking can control feeling – that if you think happy thoughts you’ll be happier. It’s more that, in the moment, when you’re re-categorizing…if you do that enough, it re-socializes you. It teaches you a new set of emotion concepts and expands your emotional vocabulary. We know that training little kids to expand their emotional vocabulary has a huge effect on their social behaviour and academic performance. Their self-regulation improves.”
“If you look at the brain and the circuitry involved in launching predictions, those are the same regions that control your body’s systems. Concepts are a tool for regulating your body. They make emotions, perceptions, thoughts – but they’re also a tool for regulating the body.”
She believes that modern urban life – with all of its stressors and expectations and mediated realities – contributes to us being profoundly unbalanced. “Our lives are an ecosystem of stress. I think it doesn’t have anything to do with being weak or mentally ill. We raise children in an environment that is filled with things designed to unbalance their body budget. Children’s nervous systems wire themselves through social and physical surroundings. If people could understand the role that the brain is playing in regulating the body, it becomes a lot clearer what the links are.”
This theory flies in the face of what so many others believed to be true about human nature; from Plato to Darwin. “You feel what your brain believes,” she says. Depending on how you look at it, this can be scary or liberating. “If you grow up in a society full of anger or hate, you can’t be blamed for having the associated concepts. But as an adult, you can choose to educate yourself and learn additional concepts. It’s certainly not an easy task, but it’s doable. You are an architect of your experience.”